OVER 1,000 British Airways (BA) baggage handlers, loaders and other ‘below-wing’ ground staff workers voted unanimously in favour of strike action at a mass meeting at Bedfont Football Ground on the outskirts of Heathrow Airport on Thursday afternoon.
This is the first mass meeting called by the Unite union since BA announced its plan to sack its 42,000 workforce and then carry out its ‘fire and rehire’ plan to bring in zero-hours contracts for those re-employed.
Workers who attended expressed their anger at the lack of any action by the union and frustrated at the fact that many of their co-workers had already been sacked.
It’s this anger that finally forced Unite to call the mass meeting on Thursday and announce that the union is now planning to hold a ballot for strike action for all GSS (Ground Service Staff) and ‘legacy’ (long-serving) cabin crew.
The strike is planned to start from the half-term week at the end of October.
A jobs’ massacre has been underway at Heathrow Airport, with BA sacking 42,000 workers on 5th August and other aviation companies, including Menzies and Alpha, sacking many more.
With all of these companies, the name of the game is ‘fire and re-hire,’ with BA leading the way.
BA announced its intention to sack its 42,000-strong workforce, and rehire 30,000 on inferior contracts four months ago, in April.
Since then, Unite and the GMB have been sending different Stewards Negotiating Panels (SNPs), representing the different sections of BA employees, into talks with BA managers to negotiate job and pay cuts, with the trade unions actually encouraging members to apply for ‘voluntary redundancy’.
However, Unite officials told Thursday’s meeting that BA are demanding ‘intolerable’ cuts to the pay, terms and conditions of ground staff and legacy cabin crew and seeking to impose zero-hours contracts on them.
A member of the Ground Service Staff (GSS) SNP told Thursday’s meeting: ‘We were in consultation for one month and then ten days ago they said they wanted to add a couple of things.
‘Then they came back and said you have to either accept the whole deal or we will proceed with fire and rehire.
‘We rejected it. Since then we have had more talks but the only option now is to strike.’
He added: ‘Engineers are being sacked and marched off the property this morning.’
Oliver Richardson, Unite National Officer for Civil Aviation, said: ‘You either have to accept the new terms and conditions or it’s fire and re-hire. We’re here to support you and we’ll give you 100% backing.’
Unite Assistant General Secretary Howard Beckett said: ‘The company see you as commodities. The reality is we are dealing with Willy Walsh.
‘Flexible working is nothing more than a zero-hours contract. They want to slash your terms and conditions.
‘The union is determined to throw the kitchen sink at this if you’ll stand with us.
‘Fire and re-hire is a capitalist device to shaft the working class. Your position is strong.
‘We say take industrial action now. It will bring the company to a halt. The timescale for industrial action is for half term at the end of October.
‘We have always said any cuts and concessions must be temporary. They want you all on lay-off clauses.
‘BA are vultures in this. Tell them loudly you joined the trade union for times like this. Together we will stand tall and defeat this company.’
Another Unite Assistant General Secretary, Sharon Graham, said: ‘BA will not be moved just because we are right. Industrial action is needed.
‘The redundancies going on in BA are atrocious. This company is firing and re-hiring because they think they can.
‘They wouldn’t have got away with it if Covid hadn’t happened.
‘Fire and re-hire has become BA’s brand. It has made them toxic.
‘Industrial action is critical. They made £1.9bn profit in 2019 and they made it on your current terms and conditions.’
Beckett said: ‘BA want to go down the road of fire and re-hire. That’s the endgame.
‘BA is deliberately targeting certain groups, yourselves and legacy Cabin Crew. They want to smash the terms and conditions of legacy Cabin Crew and GSS.
‘The reality is we need to show a stick. If we leave this meeting without a vote for industrial action then the contracts we are going to be asked to sign will be unbelievably bad.’
A member asked from the audience: ‘Will we work with the Cabin Crew, will it be at the same time?’
‘Yes it will,’ Beckett replied. ‘We are talking about organised industrial action. Right now you are in a position of strength.’
‘Why don’t we strike before October half term?’ asked another member.
Beckett replied: ‘We have to see out the voluntary redundancies and compulsory redundancies before we ballot.
‘We know BA. They will challenge anything. We say, don’t book BA for half term or beyond.
‘It’s not just for one week. This industrial action could be carried out for months or even years. The clear message to BA is, you’ve started something you can’t stop.’
A steward for baggage handlers said: ‘Since last Tuesday, we have seen guys who have done 35-40 years for the company treated like scum, sacked and marched out.
‘We’ve spent a whole week with guys from baggage and loading asking what is the union going to do, grown men, some of them in tears.
‘What is Unite doing for these guys?’
Beckett replied: ‘I’d love to stand here with a silver bullet. The reality is they can do it,’ he claimed.
‘This is what BA is doing. It’s not Unite. This is the worst behaviour. Don’t direct your anger at Unite, but BA.’
Unite members angrily challenged the leading officers of the union, condemning them for allowing BA to carry out their plans.
‘Don’t tell lies,’ cried out a member. ‘You claim nobody’s been sacked. That’s not true. They have.’
Richardson replied: ‘Your example of individuals being marched off site can only be answered by what you do here today.’
Beckett added: ‘You’ve got to have faith in your industrial strength. There are also going to be mass meetings with BASSA (British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association – section of Unite) very shortly.’
A member called out: ‘You should have called this mass meeting three months ago. You would have had all BA behind you!’
Beckett claimed: ‘We couldn’t. We would have had no strength. Today is the first time we could have taken industrial action.
‘Len (McCluskey, Unite General Secretary) was probably wrong three weeks ago to have said we’re moving directly to industrial action. Today is the first time we could.’
Richardson said: ‘Unite has £36 million in the strike fund. You will get £55 a day strike pay.’
Then a hands-up vote was called, which was unanimous in favour of strike action.
Beckett said: ‘That’s a mandate for your reps and for yourselves.’
After the meeting, Unite members spoke to News Line.
Ryan Smith said: ‘Strike action is inevitable. But it shouldn’t just be ground staff and cabin crew. All of BA must be called out and the whole airport must be shut down. This is serious.’
Stuart Villiers said: ‘They have actually sold us out. We’ve seen colleagues sacked and marched out. It’s too little too late.’
Jarnail Singh said: ‘We’re going to strike. The whole of BA must be called out. The union has been too slow. The company has been allowed to get away with sacking workers whose jobs should have been saved.’
Gurdip Singh said: ‘We have to vote for strike action. BA are treating us like rubbish. Unite should call the whole airport out. The way to win is to call the whole airport out.’
Devinder Singh said: ‘We’re all voting to strike. It should be everyone. We are stronger together. They are using divide and conquer. We can beat them by uniting.’
Peter Mitchell said: ‘This is a call to arms and I think the people will respond. BA must be shown who’s boss. I want to see BA beaten.’
Jasbir Singh said: ‘The union should have kept us informed. We haven’t had a floor meeting for five months.
‘Under the new terms we’re now on we are losing five and a half thousand pounds a year. BA stands for pay cuts and mass sackings.
‘Thousands of our colleagues have gone across the board, with hundreds off the ramp.’
Phil Mackenzie said: ‘Yes, let’s strike, but no half measures. The least Unite can do is call the airport out. But if that doesn’t do it, it must call the rest of the union out. Unite must call a national strike.’